Babeu taps into debate over border
Frames Pinal as a smuggling route; GOP legislators favor his tough talk
Sheriff Paul Babeu's county is 80 miles north of the Mexican border, yet he's poised to receive $5 million in border-security money from the Legislature.
Sheriff Clarence Dupnik's county shares about 125 miles of border with Mexico, yet the state Senate's budget deliberately excludes his department from any border-security funding.
Politics, for one thing: Dupnik is a Democrat who has vocally opposed some of the Legislature's anti-illegal-immigration measures. Babeu is a Republican, an enthusiastic campaigner for SB 1070, and a national alarm-sounder on border-security issues.
But the explanation goes deeper than just that, reaching from the rudiments of border-security funding to the rhetoric of illegal-immigration control. Even Babeu acknowledges that his pending appropriation, passed last week by a Senate committee but still awaiting a vote by the whole chamber, has both practical and symbolic aspects.
"You have a sheriff here before you who is asking for the help, who is willing to go out and lead the fight against cartels," Babeu told a Thursday hearing of the Senate's committee on Border Security, Federalism and States Sovereignty. "Symbolically it sends a message to Washington: Do your jobs - solve the core issue."
Sheriff Tony Estrada of Santa Cruz County, a Democrat, sees a different message in the Legislature's actions - of partisanship over pragmatism.
"I was very disappointed because it's very obvious that they're playing favorites up there," Estrada said. "They're really not thinking about the border."
Worse than Pima County
For almost a year, Babeu has led a campaign to show that conditions in his county prove the federal government has failed to secure the border.
But Babeu says his effort isn't just an initiative to show he can do the job better than the federal government. His county especially needs the help, Babeu asserted in an interview last week: "It's far worse than Pima County, Cochise County or Santa Cruz County."
To demonstrate, he cites department figures showing a surge in vehicle pursuits, marijuana seizures and calls to Border Patrol in the last two to three years. Border Patrol officials and others agree that more traffic has shifted into the corridor that leads north through the Tohono O'odham Nation into western Pinal County in the last year or two.
But Babeu and his department also frequently use more slippery figures based on extrapolations of descriptions by federal agencies.
Last week in a speech in Tucson, Babeu repeated a description he often makes, calling Pinal County "the No. 1 pass-through county for drug- and human-smuggling in America."
That characterization is based not so much on hard comparative data but on the fact that the Border Patrol's Tucson sector is the country's top area for illegal crossings, and that federal officials say that in Southern Arizona, "all roads lead to Pinal County."
In other words, vehicles carrying contraband through Pinal County on I-10 or I-8 also count toward the county's "No. 1" ranking.
Babeu also repeated to the Senate committee a claim he makes frequently - that "nearly 400,000" illegal immigrants made it into the United States in the Tucson sector during the last fiscal year.
His reasoning? The Border Patrol made 241,000 apprehensions in that sector last year, and the Border Patrol once said there are 2.6 crossers who get away for every one who makes it. Do the math, and the number of successful crossings seems to add up to 385,000.
Except that the Border Patrol says the figure is wrong.
"The Sheriff's estimation is outdated, and when examined, does not take into account the significant dedication of resources over the last two years," agency spokeswoman Melanie Roe said in an email. It also doesn't take into account that many illegal immigrants cross time and time again, and can be counted several times in the number of apprehensions.
During a recent press conference, Tucson sector chief Randy Hill said he estimates the agency catches nine of every 10 who try to cross illegally into this sector.
Any estimate of those who got away is "sheer speculation and guesstimation," said David Shirk, director of the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego.
While Pinal County stands to gain a windfall in border-security funding from this Legislature, it has missed out on previous funding rounds because it's removed from the border.
Last year, Gov. Jan Brewer's Office of Economic Recovery distributed nearly $10 million in federal stimulus money to cities and counties near the border. Pinal County was excluded.
Cochise County received $1.55 million, Santa Cruz County received $1.3 million and Pima County received $1.1 million, which it spent on 52 4X4 SUVs, helicopter parts and fuel, rifle optics and other equipment.
Babeu asked to be included in the funding but was only able to get a later $200,000 award from the governor.
Some federal funding also focuses on counties and municipalities closer to the border. Babeu told the committee his agency received $300,000 in Operation Stonegarden funding - federal money largely used for overtime paid to officers doing border-related patrols - that was passed on by other Southern Arizona agencies who couldn't use it.
Babeu's current effort is pioneering in that it aims to make unnecessary such federal funding and assistance, said Janice Kephart national security policy director for the Virginia-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower immigration levels.
"The sheriff represents a credible, logical law-enforcement-oriented perspective on the situation of Arizona that is devoid to a large part of the political charge you had with Sheriff Joe (Arpaio)," Kephart said. "Adding credibility to this issue is tremendously important."
But David Shirk, director of the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego, marvels at the continued focus on enforcement efforts along the border, because he says they are clearly creating diminishing returns.
"We're spending more on the border than ever before, and yet we have not significantly improved our ability to stop illicit flows of goods or people."
Some see a clear political calculus behind the Legislature's embrace of Babeu and rejection of Dupnik.
Babeu is simply turning his telegenic media persona into money, said longtime Arizona pollster Bruce Merrill.
"When you live in a media society, there isn't any reality except that that's created by the media," Merrill said.
Babeu's portrayal of himself as a tough sheriff fighting a border battle has made him powerful in Arizona politics, Merrill said. That power can be cashed in among his supporters in the Legislature.
Dupnik, on the other hand, has clashed with the Legislature in the last year. First, he announced his opposition to SB 1070, saying he didn't want to enforce it or think it was needed. Then, on Jan. 8, in a press conference after the mass shooting that targeted U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Dupnik said Arizona has "become the mecca of prejudice and bigotry," an apparent reference to the Legislature's anti-immigration efforts.
Senate President Russell Pearce said it was Dupnik's alleged unwillingness to enforce SB 1070 that convinced him to provide $1.6 million in border-security funding to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's department and $500,000 to Babeu's department.
Dupnik's recent statements have washed away his years of relatively hard-line rhetoric on border issues, including his controversial 2009 comment that "It's wrong for the taxpayers in this country to spend the millions and millions and millions of dollars that we do catering to illegals."
"It appears they were sending Sheriff Dupnik a message," Estrada said.
how funds will be used
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said that if the bill funding his border-security effort passes the Legislature, he plans to spend the $5 million on these things:
• A helicopter
• AR-15 and M4 rifles
• Ghurka armored vehicles - like Humvees but better for desert driving
• Ground-based radar for detecting people traversing the desert illegally.